SEO and web design

Search engines are limited in how they crawl the web and interpret content. A webpage doesn’t always look the same to you and me as it looks to a search engine. As technology advances and web usage evolves, so do SEO best practices. Web designers now have more choices and technologies available than ever before.

I thought it would be helpful to revisit the top SEO considerations relating to some of the latest website design trends, which include parallax, responsive, and HTML5 design.

Although I am a huge fan of incorporating all three design choices when appropriate; in all cases, site architecture and accessibility remain the primary SEO concerns.

Most people know that designing with the end user in mind also helps improve SEO rankings. There are technical reasons why this is the case and why it’s of paramount importance to design with the user in mind. This article focuses on this concept in more detail, and I provide actionable next steps for SEO professionals to consider when thinking about website interaction and user experience design.

Website Design Trends

Parallax design puts web content on one page, at the user’s fingertips, and can be a great way to lead a consumer through a storytelling process. Every site I’ve worked on that has adopted some type of parallax storytelling design has seen improvements in conversion rates.

Responsive design is Google’s recommended method of designing for multiple devices. There are tremendous user experience advantages to adopting responsive web design concepts that allow your website to perform optimally for multiple devices.

In addition to the user experience benefits of responsive web design, the primary benefit for SEO is that it does not dilute your link equity. In other words, responsive web design gives you one URL for both your mobile site and your main site, which means that you are more likely to do a better job increasing your external backlink count to each page versus having to drive links to two separate URLs.

HTML5 has been touted as the next big thing in web design, but implementation can be troublesome for SEO. HTML5 designs can be amazing, interactive and inspirational, but if they aren’t coded properly, Google sees an empty page.

For example, in this post we can find examples of great HTML5 animation. However, here is what Google finds when it crawls the page:


Many websites that incorporate all the visually appealing aspects that popular HTML5 coding delivers also heavily incorporate JavaScript, which makes it difficult for search engine bots to understand the content. It is possible to show static content that represents your HTML5 content so that bots can better index your website.

Unfortunately, few website developers take the time to make a static version of the content for search bots.

When Less Is More

Normally when I hear the words, “We need to reduce some content,” I immediately think “SEO disaster.” When I am done shuddering, I remind myself that sometimes less is more.

As a result of recent changes by Google like Hummingbird, marketers are observing that placing too much emphasis on topical subcategory pages could be a bad SEO strategy. Historically, more categories were good for SEO because they meant that we had more content that could be ranked for body/torso terms.

Cognitive Dissonance & Web Design

The theory of cognitive dissonance states that people have a drive to reduce dissonance to create consistency and a feeling of control — to make their expectations match their reality. According to the theory, when people are unable to do so, they will simply avoid whatever is making them feel out of control.

To provide the best website experience, we should let data and the user experience drive our design. Only by doing this can we ensure we aren’t alienating our target audience.

SEO professionals particularly need to be aware of the cognitive dissonance that can occur at the keyword-to-landing-page level. The keywords you optimize for must match the landing-page experience that a searcher would expect.

Because of this principle, I recommend routinely sorting SEO entry pages by bounce rate. Then, start with the pages with the highest bounce rate and double check the types of search keywords that were driving traffic to those pages to ensure that the entry page provided an adequate response to the top entry keywords.

Now that keywords are “100% not provided;” this can still be accomplished by checking keywords from Bing as a relatively good proxy.

Reasonable Surfer Patent

When we design our pages with the end user in mind, we should also be keeping in mind Google’s reasonable surfer patent. According to this patent, the most prominent links and the links that are clicked more frequently pass more internal pagerank.

This means that if you are making changes to your website’s main navigation or if you move prominent links to less prominent locations, there is a possibility ranking declines will ensue. This is just another example of how closely SEO is tied  to website design.

There are many situations where website design choices can help or hurt your SEO efforts. Many of the trends in website design indicate that accessibility and website architecture best practices are still important considerations.

We benefit both our users and ourselves when we design webpages in a way that doesn’t overwhelm or confuse users, but leads them to links, categories or subcategories to find the content they need. Creating pages with our end users in mind and combining web design best practices with SEO best practices is a win-win.